Student athletes are expected to be role models, and lead their peers through their actions and words. In best-case scenarios kids embrace these expectations, and regularly make healthy decisions and encourage others to do the same. In other instances, however, student athletes have gotten caught up in controversies (or even the law), and failed to live up to the role modeling expectations society has placed on their shoulders. While being a leader is a worthwhile pursuit, not every youngster knows how to lead, nor are they always aware of the magnitude of their decisions as they impact others (for better or for worse). It is for these reasons that we must regularly remind kids that with the title of “leader” comes the big responsibility of owning what that actually means.
The perks of being a leader
Student athletes are afforded many benefits and luxuries as a byproduct of being on a sports team. Being a visible member of the school/community, traveling to different parts of the country, and potentially having part (or all) of their future college paid for in exchange for playing a sport are just a few perks for kids who are committed to sports. Student athletes are often looked at as heroes in their schools and communities, and sometimes opportunities are presented to them that might not have been there had they not been an athlete — especially true for student athletes who embrace being a leader.
The responsibilities of being a leader
The challenge, however, is gaining a full understanding and appreciation of the expectations that accompany being a role model and leader. Student athletes are often held to a higher standard, especially as this applies to their decision-making. Drilling deeper, this includes the parties they choose to attend (especially if alcohol/drugs are present), the academic grades they earn in school, and even the ways in which they use social media. Unfortunately, many student athletes overlook these issues, or minimize their importance.
When dealing with kids, we can’t simply slap a label of “role model” on them and expect them to excel without our guidance and development. Some kids simply don’t know what being a leader actually means, while other kids like the title of being a leader, but are not fully committed to engaging in leadership behaviors and activities.
How coaches and parents can help:
- Discuss the visibility of being a student athlete. It is important that student athletes realize just how visible they are, as it is quite common for kids to forget/overlook this reality. Student athletes are regularly featured on tv, newspapers, and social media, and when they are in public and wearing their sports gear (i.e. letter winners jacket) it becomes easy for the public to quickly identify them. It is for these reasons that student athletes should always assume they are being watched and monitored since they never know how they are being seen by others.
- Identify specific “leadership” actions and conduct. Another challenge student athletes regularly experience is learning exactly what it means to be a leader? It’s interesting in that we quickly ascribe the title of “role model” to kids who play sports, but we don’t always teach them exactly what this means, or how to go about being a role model. Is it any wonder why some kids struggle with the expectations of being a leader when they have never been taught exactly what that means? Take time out to teach kids how to use social media constructively, volunteer in the community, and address important concerns at school so that they have tangible examples of leadership in action.
- Examine the many responsibilities that come with role modeling. Along with teaching kids how to be leaders, we should also remind them of the sphere of influence they have over others, and how their decisions impact how others think and behave. This means that the ways in which they conduct themselves should not be taken lightly, and that if they choose to engage in unhealthy and/or illegal behaviors, they will almost certainly inspire others to do the same, unfortunately.
Being a sports role model should be an exciting opportunity for kids, but it’s also important that we teach them how to be role models, as well as emphasize how impactful their words and actions are to others watching. When student athletes embrace the role of being a leader and carry out the expectations accordingly, they have a tremendous opportunity to not only effect their teammates, but also their non-athlete peers and entire community at-large.